In the winter of 1967, I was 28 years old and had three kids. The oldest was five, the next was two, and the baby was about five months. My husband was on the road selling ham salad. He left Monday morning and came home Friday afternoon. My mother and father were in Florida for the winter. My sister worked at Sears. As far as family went, that was it.
Maria, my oldest daughter, went to kindergarten half a day. She came home at noon and said she had a sore throat. I thought it was a cold. It wasn’t. It was the mumps. When your kids have the mumps no one comes to see you. You don’t go out. No babysitter will come in. In two weeks when she was well and back at school, my son Ford came down with them. The baby came next. That was five long weeks of ice cream and soup. No visitors, no adult voices, no library books, no night out, no grocery shopping except weekends. Call it hell or prison or motherhood. It was all the same shade of gray.
I shuffled through my daily chores, did the wash, did the dishes. Some days I didn’t even bother getting dressed. The kids would argue, fight. She hit me. Well, he took my whatever. He hit me. It’s mine. Give it back. No. The constant bickering and arguing would drive me to tears or worse. I would get down, kneel on the floor and bang my head or my fists on the rug, crying, begging for mercy. Please, please, I would beg them, wailing. They’d look at me, their eyes widening, silent for a moment. I huddled in a hump on the floor until I stopped crying.
I knew I was inadequate, a terrible mother, absorbed in my own misery, but I didn’t have the energy or the strength to do anything about it. I needed a good night’s sleep, but I couldn’t seem to fall asleep. After the kids were in bed, I’d watch the late show, the late-late show, falling asleep on the couch, waking up there when the first kid showed up looking for breakfast. The TV would still be on, all static, and I’d stare at the snowy screen until the kids demanded breakfast. Outside the snow continued to fall and fall and fall. My parents sent postcards of tropical gardens and palm trees, oceans, sun. My sister called to ask how it was going, but didn?t visit.
Just when I thought the worst was over, and I would again join the land of the living, Maria came down with chicken pox. The doctor said, “Don’t bring her here!” The pharmacy delivered calamine lotion and anti-inching cream.
I’d never had chicken pox, even though my best friend got them, and I’d been with her all afternoon. All the other kids I knew got them. I worried now that I was really vulnerable. No need; I didn’t have the strength to get sick. Just when Maria’s scars were starting to heal, Ford came down with them, screaming and scratching himself so badly I had to dip him in calamine lotion every other hour. Andrea, the baby, seemed to share my immunity. She kept busy learning to crawl over and around the toys strewn everywhere. I never got around to picking them up. What’s the use? They’d just get dumped back out again and again.
I sat slumped in my chair watching television, anything I could find, even the soaps, even the soaps. I ran the washer, the dryer, I folded diapers, clothes, I fed, bathed, put to bed. I delivered medicines at the appropriate times. I stayed awake or slept too deeply. Without the TV set, I would have never made it. I became an addict. Television became my best friend. The old black and white Zenith ran every minute. The low contrast suited my life, gray, all of it.
One morning when I went out to get the milk (we still had it delivered) one of them slammed the door shut behind me. I was on the porch in my wrinkled, fuzzy, aqua bathrobe and they couldn’t or wouldn’t open the door, though I yelled instructions through the glass, making twisting motions. At first they laughed, thinking it was funny, and then they seemed to get a little scared, as I did. I thought I could crouch down between the storm door and the inside door and maybe fall asleep. When the neighbors got home from work they might come and help or they might not notice me, and I would freeze to death. I remembered hearing that this was a pleasant way to go.
Because my husband was away all week, I kept all the doors and windows locked. I even had stacks of canned goods by the cellar doors should there be an intruder. I looked up and down the block at the empty driveways. I’d have to break in.
I kicked in a window above the cellar washtubs and picked out the glass. I was hoping I’d forgotten to lock the door to the cellar. Luckily I had. I stepped around my booby trap and into the kitchen.
Inside, I wrapped up in an old afghan, ignored the kids, and lay down on the couch. I didn’t move until I had to go to the bathroom. My own children wanted me out of the house. I was a terrible mother. I couldn’t help it. I wanted to be better, but I didn’t seem able to. I needed vitamins or sugar, more energy.
When I thought the worst was over, that we would be all cured, healthy, and spring would shine on us, Maria brought home some 24-hour flu bug. Kindergartens are like centers for disease, breeding pens for germs, viruses. This 24-hour, throw-up virus raged through our little community.
The sound of someone throwing up makes me gag. Three days of hell followed. They never made it to the bathroom. I gave them paper bags to throw up in. They never made it to the bag. I spent the day cleaning up, following them around with a bucket and rags. I cleaned up puddle after puddle, usually on upholstery or a rug rather than tile or linoleum. Finally, they were down to a clear liquid, which I could handle. I never got sick. If I had, I would have been happy to lie down and give up.
I remember catching sight of myself in a window. I was holding the baby. Who’s this? I asked. I thought at first it was someone looking in, and then I realized it was me, my uncombed hair hanging around my unwashed face, my mouth hanging lax, open. I looked down at the baby. Her face was pink and beautiful. I didn’t remember who she was for an instant. I scared myself.
Freezing to death is one thing, losing touch with who you are is another. I have had, from time to time, these moments of clarity, a certain kind of disassociation. Once I was screaming at the kids for something, I don’t remember what. I was standing by the refrigerator, by the kitchen table, screaming. Inside, a clear voice said, this is getting out of hand. That voice was me, too. I could hear the other me still screaming out there. I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to pull the two of them together, the one out there was so out of control, but, finally, she stopped and began to sob, her usual way out.
The doctor said not to feed my flu-ravaged children for 24 hours. They were only allowed Jello and ginger ale, plenty of liquids. No way I would feed them knowing that within the hour it would come back up in a puddle of puke which I’d have to clean up. I made myself dinner, some fried, leftover thing. I was sitting at the kitchen table by myself and in the doorway three little hungry faces watched me eat. “It’s too soon for you to eat,” I tried to explain. They edged closer to the table. “No way,” I said. I started to laugh; those hungry little faces were a sign of health, recovery.
In my journal from that winter, I found a cartoon I clipped from “McCall’s” of a woman holding a baby in one arm and a spoon in the other standing in front of a stove filled with smoking pots and pans. Another child is tugging at her skirt, another crying in the high chair. The floor is littered with toys, cars, blocks. A man sits at the table. The caption reads: “I don’t understand you, Helen. You used to be such a fun person.”
Somehow spring came, diseases stopped coming, and we were out of quarantine. Friends came back, life resumed some of its color. The story became a sure-fire laugh-getter when I began the litany of diseases, incubation periods, and symptoms, telling it in my ironic, logical voice. Over the years as I’ve told the story, made fun of myself, getting sympathetic laughs, there’s always that other me, the one over the top, banging her head. And, sometimes, she’ll remember that winter and start to cry.